Developments relating to the U.S. military’s expanding use of pilotless drones and whether the Pentagon’s escalating reliance upon these drones might diminish the role of conventional, piloted warplanes have been making headlines this summer.
This is because, according to most aviation experts, drones, also called “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPAs) and “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), are considered the “wave of the future.”
The drones have been proving their worth in the Middle East and Africa by successfully targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorist leaders and their bases.
They can stay aloft endlessly because they have no on-board pilots who can become tired or, during combat, injured or killed; their computers can process countless levels of information no human can provide and they are much cheaper to manufacture than conventional aircraft, add these experts.
And, because they have no cockpits or crew on board, the drones can be built in all sizes, shapes and weights. Some drones can even fit in the palm of your hand, allowing for unprecedented levels of infiltration and surveillance.
The larger drones, such as the MQ-1 “Predator” and MQ-9 “Reaper” that are guided to their overseas targets by pilots at Creech Air Force Base 50 miles north of Las Vegas, can fire missiles and drop bombs, and they, like the much smaller drones, represent an astonishing new step in aviation warfare, echo the aviation experts and military historians.
So what, then, will become of traditional Navy, Air Force, Marine and Army piloted airplanes and helicopters? Will they become extinct? Or will military aviation become a mixture of piloted and pilotless aircraft?
It is too early to say, but those who have a stake in the future of conventional military aviation are learning that five weeks ago a pilotless, experimental jet fighter flown entirely by computer landed on a U.S. aircraft carrier.
The X-47B took off from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland before approaching the USS George H. Bush which was operating off the coast of Virginia.
The drone landed on the Bush by deploying a tailhook that caught a wire on the deck, bringing it to a quick stop, just like conventional jets do.
“Your grandchildren and mine will be reading about this historic event in their history books,” said Rear Adm. Matt Winter, the Navy’s executive officer for unmanned aviation and strike weapons. The X-47B, unlike the currently-operating drones which are guided to their targets by pilots in far-off ground stations, relies solely on computer programs and precision GPS navigation to tell it where to fly. The aircraft has a wingspan of about 62 feet versus the 48-foot wingspan of the Predator.
Indeed, as Winter said, the landing of the X-47B on the USS Bush was history in the making ... a history for naval aviation that began Jan. 18, 1911, when Eugene Ely made the first landing of an airplane on a ship when he landed his little Curtiss biplane on a temporary wooden platform that had been constructed on the deck of the cruiser USS Pennsylvania which was moored in San Francisco Bay.
There is also a further aspect relating to the use of military drones that has been making news, and it concerns drone pilots such as those at Creech AFB who sit before the computers in trailers and guide missile and bomb-laden drones to their targets in the Middle East by pushing buttons and manipulating short, vertical rods called “joysticks.”
Early this summer, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel scrapped a controversial decision made by his predecessor, Leon Panetta, that called for the drone pilots to be issued a “Distinguished Warfare Medal” which outranked some other medals awarded troops wounded or killed in combat.
The medal approved by Panetta outranked the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and Hagel, himself the winner of two Purple Hearts, was outraged as were veterans’ groups and many members of Congress who were inundated by complaints from constituents that the new medal should not be given to “video and Nintendo jockeys.”
Hagel has said that instead of the Distinguished Warfare Medal, qualified drone pilots will now be awarded a “distinguishing device” that can be affixed to their existing medals or awards.
No doubt about it: Air warfare is changing, it is entering uncharted waters, and the drones are at the heart of this rapidly-developing evolvement.
David. C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.